Background Vascular calcification is associated with poor cardiovascular outcome. Histochemical analysis of calcification and the expression of proteins involved in mineralization are usually based on whole section analysis, thereby often ignoring regional differences in atherosclerotic lesions. At present, limited information is available about factors involved in the initiation and progression of atherosclerosis. Aim of This Study This study investigates the intra-section association of micro-calcifications with markers for atherosclerosis in randomly chosen section areas of human coronary arteries. Moreover, the possible causal relationship between calcifying vascular smooth muscle cells and inflammation was explored in vitro. Technical Approach To gain insights into the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis, we performed analysis of the distribution of micro-calcifications using a 3-MeV proton microbeam. Additionally, we performed systematic analyses of 30 to 40 regions of 12 coronary sections obtained from 6 patients including histology and immuno-histochemistry. Section areas were classified according to CD68 positivity. In vitro experiments using human vascular smooth muscle cells (hVSMCs) were performed to evaluate causal relationships between calcification and inflammation. Results From each section multiple areas were randomly chosen and subsequently analyzed. Depositions of calcium crystals at the micrometer scale were already observed in areas with early pre-atheroma type I lesions. Micro-calcifications were initiated at the elastica interna concomitantly with upregulation of the uncarboxylated form of matrix Gla-protein (ucMGP). Both the amount of calcium crystals and ucMGP staining increased from type I to IV atherosclerotic lesions. Osteochondrogenic markers BMP-2 and osteocalcin were only significantly increased in type IV atheroma lesions, and at this stage correlated with the degree of calcification. From atheroma area type III onwards a considerable number of CD68 positive cells were observed in combination with calcification, suggesting a proinflammatory effect of micro-calcifications. In vitro, invasion assays revealed chemoattractant properties of cell-culture medium of calcifying vascular smooth muscle cells towards THP-1 cells, which implies pro-inflammatory effect of calcium deposits. Additionally, calcifying hVSMCs revealed a pro-inflammatory profile as compared to non-calcifying hVSMCs. Conclusion Our data indicate that calcification of VSMCs is one of the earliest events in the genesis of atherosclerosis, which strongly correlates with ucMGP staining. Our findings suggest that loss of calcification inhibitors and/or failure of inhibitory capacity is causative for the early precipitation of calcium, with concomitant increased inflammation followed by osteochondrogenic transdifferentiation of VSMCs.
Chatrou, M. L. L., Cleutjens, J. P., Van Vusse, G. J. D., Roijers, R. B., Mutsaers, P. H. A., & Schurgers, L. J. (2015). Intra-section analysis of human coronary arteries reveals a potential role for micro-calcifications in macrophage recruitment in the early stage of atherosclerosis. PLoS ONE, 10(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0142335